February 28, 2024

Tech Tips: Prevention proves best protection against ransomware

Ransomware is a type of computer virus that holds your data hostage. Once an obscure means of cyberattack, it can strike anyone from individuals to major corporations. Here’s how to minimize your chances of being affected by the latest strains of ransomware.

Most people have little warning of ransomware infection. Often the first indication is a pop-up window stating that their data has been encrypted and will be deleted unless the ransom is paid. Ransomware isn’t exclusively a Windows problem. Mac ransomware not only exists but is just as virulent; as is ransomware for mobile devices.

Consumers, companies, colleges, hospitals, small towns, cities and even countries have been hit by ransomware. Experts advise against paying the ransom, saying that this only encourages criminals to continue their activities. However, some organizations, faced with insurmountable challenges in restoring their data, choose to do so. The question of whether or not to pay the ransom remains a topic of much debate in IT circles.

How does ransomware gain a foothold? It might sneak in through an email phishing scam, or it could piggyback atop a conventional computer virus. You might encounter one on a malicious website or in an infected ad on a legitimate site. Unpatched and unprotected servers, often run by small businesses unaware of the risks, are a haven for all computer viruses including ransomware.

Ransomware is unlike other computer viruses because it encrypts your data. Even if the ransomware is removed, you might not be able to get that data back. This is why prevention is so critical.

Fortunately, the same basic precautions that all consumers should take against computer viruses also work against ransomware. Security software can detect some ransomware variants, and many routers have intrusion detection features. You also can prevent ransomware from sneaking through buggy software by keeping your system and apps updated. Web extensions like BitDefender’s TrafficLight can block malicious websites. And you can avoid phishing scams by not clicking on links in email messages.

Good backups are always a necessity. While you should continue to use your regular backup methods, you also should keep a separate offline backup. This backup stays disconnected from all computers and networks except when it’s actively running. For example, think of a hard drive that lives in a desk drawer. Since it’s disconnected, it can’t be infected (presuming the data was clean when the backup was made). An offline backup is the best precaution you can take against losing your data to ransomware.

Drive imaging software is great for this type of backup because it creates a start-up image of your system, including all software and data. If your computer becomes infected, you can wipe it, then boot from the drive image to restore your computer. It’s much faster than reinstalling from scratch. You’ll find links on my Tech Tips blog for suggested antivirus apps, as well as backup methods for Windows, Mac and mobile devices.

If you’ve been affected by ransomware, the FBI recommends that you report the crime to your local field office or their Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

• Triona Guidry is a computer specialist and freelance writer offering tech support, web design, and business writing services. Visit her Tech Tips blog at www.lightningtechsupport.com to receive the latest consumer tech news by email.